Friday, July 7, 2017

Schenectady's Colorful Canallers

This post is written by SCHS library volunteer Diane Leone

The Erie Canal running through Schenectady. This sketch is from
the December 1873 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
The Erie Canal was one of the country’s most ambitious engineering undertakings. Completed in 1825 after eight years of construction, this marvel connected Lake Erie with the Hudson River, thus opening up the untapped resources of the Midwest to the East coast, which sent both immigrants and manufactured goods west. Although scoffers called the original canal Clinton’s Ditch, it very quickly proved its value, and by 1865, more than 7,000 boats traveled its waters. The waterway was enlarged to accommodate heavier traffic, once in 1862 and a second time in 1895. Eventually the mechanized Barge Canal, completed in 1918, replaced the original canal with its towpath. Still, the “Roaring Giddap,” as the canallers called the horse- and mule-powered canal, left an indelible imprint on the history of the nation.

Along with other cities and towns on the canal, Schenectady was part of a rich store of stories—some tall tales—and songs about those who made their living on the Erie. These canallers, primarily men, were a rowdy lot. As noted canal historian Lionel D. Wyld states in Boaters and Broomsticks: Tales and Historical Lore of the Erie Canal:“They drank deeply, they ate heartily, they fought eagerly, and they sang lustily” (79). After all, they worked long hours at physically demanding jobs in a competitive, even aggressive atmosphere, with hours of monotony punctuated by stops at canal towns which offered ample liquor and other forms of entertainment.

The Craig Hotel in Niskayuna was a popular stop on the hotel. This photo shows owner Jack McPherson behind the bar. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.
  
Drinking and fighting seem to have been the two chief activities of these boatmen. The literature is rife with examples of canallers’ fondness for spirits, although this reputation derives partly from authors, such as Walter D. Edmonds, known for popularizing the canal in fiction. In Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal, Wyld includes an iconic song, “E-RI-E Canal, with the apt refrain:

O the E-ri-e was a-rising, And the gin was getting low, And I scarcely think we'll get a drink ‘Till we get to Buffalo, ‘Till we get to Buffalo.  (101)


As Lawrence Naylor notes in The Effects of the Erie Canal on Schenectady, “A boater could get off at Union Street, race down Wall Street to Lou Barhydt’s for a jug of rum, and, if he didn’t stop to sample the merchandise, could dash down Wall Street and hop back aboard at State to continue their journey west” (15). Wyld relates the amusing tale of a boater who brags to the bartender at McClare’s Hotel in Rexford that he can, “…down a gallon of hard cider without taking more than three breaths” (Boaters 45). When the barkeep agrees to the wager, the boater disappears for a few minutes. Upon his return, he chugs down the gallon of cider provided by the bartender.

“Didn’t think it could be done,” he [the bartender] told the canaller, shaking his head in doubt over what he had just seen with his own eyes. The Erie boater wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “T’ tell the truth, neither did I,” he answered with a satisfied grin, “’til I run down to yer neighbor tavern t’ find out!” (Boaters 45)


Alcohol was not only a means of relaxation, but also served as compensation or inducement for preferential treatment. Packet boats, which carried passengers, traveled day and night, and captains were under pressure to reach their destinations quickly. The fourth verse in the song, “Raging Canal,” makes this clear:

The Captain told the driver to hurry with all speed---And his orders were obeyed, for he soon cracked up his lead; With the fastest kind of towing we allowed by twelve o’clock, We should be in old Schenectady right bang against the dock. (Wyld, Low Bridge! 91)


Henry Heilbronner owned a successful
 wholesale liquor store on State Street. 
There's a good chance the bribes for the 
locktenders came from Heilbronners.
Courtesy of the Schenectady History Museum.
Travelers were known to bribe canallers with whiskey to accelerate the boat’s speed through the canal, although vessels traveling faster than four miles per hour risked being fined, since the resulting wakes could damage the canal walls. Boatmen offered liquid tips to the locktenders—who wielded quite a bit of power—to speed up their time in the locks with a surge of water. A captain on the wrong side of the locktender, however, might find his boat unexpectedly bumping up against the sides of the lock.

Given the rate of alcohol consumption, canallers had a reputation for aggressive behavior. To some extent, this was an occupational qualification. Given the busy canal traffic, waiting time for entry into the locks was often long. Delays were bad for business, particularly for packet lines, which had preference over freight boats going through the locks. Competition existed even among packet crews. It was important for a captain to count among his crew intimidating men who could physically enforce their claims. To that end, captains were often handy with their fists, and hired men known as successful brawlers.
An example of an early lock on the canal. Courtesy of the
Albany Institute of History and Art.


Cities such as Buffalo and Watervliet had reputations as places where fighting was rampant. In fact, in the 1860’s, a two-mile area on the Buffalo waterfront was viewed as the “wickedest street in the world.” Apparently, Schenectady was also a hub for scrappers. Referring to the canal around 1850, a 1922 Gazette article, “Schenectady Was One Bright Spot on Erie Canal,” noted that the opening of the canal season in the spring brought the first fight of the season, “…where every quarrel or grudge contracted on the trip between Buffalo and Albany among canal men was fought out” (14). This maiden contest took place in a large open area on Dock Street—now Erie Boulevard—midway between State and Weaver Streets. The contestants were required to be sluggers of great distinction, whose animosity toward each other was stoked by the canallers. The battle ended only when one fighter indicated that he had had enough, which often occurred only after he was in rather dire shape. Following this spectacle, the crowd would proceed to a drinking establishment on Robinson Street where the victor bought drinks for the spectators and the loser, and the imbibing continued, “…until everyone in the party was unable to stand” (14).

So concerned was the city’s governing body about the influence of canallers on the students of both Union College and the attached grammar school that they extended the force of existing laws, which prohibited luring youth into “the vice of gaming” and providing them with “wine or spiritous liquors.” Jeanette Neisuler notes in her article, "When Schenectady and the Erie Canal Were Young," that the city fathers also had the canallers in mind when they enacted other laws, including the following: “If, when there shall be an assemblage of persons at or near any railroad or canal within the bounds of the police district in this city, any one of them shall audibly utter profane or obscene words…” (154), the perpetrator will incur a fine of $25.
Photo of a barge in the canal with Dock Street on the left. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.

Along with those who made their living working the boats, the canal generated a variety of auxiliary jobs. The runner, often a youth, was tasked with convincing passengers to choose the packet line for which he worked. It seems that Schenectady’s runners were so competitive that this piece of the canal was called “The Battleground.” Wyld includes a report from a passenger from Saratoga, who observed the antics of competing runners on Dock Street. As their sales pitches turned to insulting their rivals, there arose quite a brouhaha:

With fists flying, the hawker for the Dutch Flyer ploughed into the Will ‘O’ Wisp man and the fight was on.  The Saratogian reported that everyone in sight joined in—it was anybody’s fight.  Three participants were pushed into the canal but kept on fighting all the same. Some canallers were jailed, but the battlers earnestly continued the brawl in the lockup (Boaters 43).


The Great Wardrobe on the canal in 1894. This photo was taken west of Schenectady. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.
This image gives you a good idea
of how low the lowbridges of the
canal were. Courtesy of eriecanal.org
For packet boat canallers the safety of their passengers was important. Numerous bridges spanned the canal, often crossing farmland bisected by the Erie. The many travelers who took some fresh air on the roof of the packet boat cabin were in danger of suffering serious, even mortal, injury if they did not heed the canaller’s warning of "Bridge!" or "Low Bridge!" Neisuler mentions an 1835 Amsterdam newspaper report of a rather gruesome accident. A young woman traveling between that city and Schenectady was reading in an inclined position to avoid head exposure, when the vessel passed beneath an especially low bridge: “…before she had an opportunity of discovering her danger, her head was caught and crushed in a horrid manner, between the timbers of the bridge and the trunk on which she was leaning….” (157).

Accidents were common among canallers as well. Schenectady chronicler Larry Hart notes that mishaps were a daily occurrence in Old Dorp; along with injuries from low bridges, they included drownings, heat prostration, mangled limbs, and strangulation by ropes. Wyld offers several examples of these unfortunate events, including an incident in which the rope line of a grain boat near Two-Mile House in Rotterdam wrapped around a boater’s leg, dragging the vessel and nearly severing the man’s appendage. As the author relates, the victim was brought to the nearby hotel, “… and given a good supply of spirits until the doctor came to complete the amputation” (Boaters 110). Another accident on the enlarged and deepened canal was the result of a leaky boat—not an uncommon occurrence—which carried a cargo of rock salt. As the craft began to sink between Schenectady and Niskayuna, the captain used an axe to cut open the stable roof to save the mules.
           

Some locktenders on shore spied the woman and shouted to the captain.“Never mind those mules,” they hollered, “get that old lady off the boat before it goes down!” The boater kept hacking away. “These mules cost money,” he shouted back. “I can get an old lady anyplace!” (110)


As some of the stories related above indicate, canal life generated a rich body of traditional tales. Among many others were yarns about an incredible strong Bunyanesque character named McCarthy, the giant squash of Palmyra, the Rome area’s giant frog, and mosquitoes from the swamps west of Utica. Another Schenectady tale involves the winds that often blew women’s skirts up as they crossed the numerous bridges spanning the canal. From this embarrassing situation arose a story from the end of the nineteenth century, about a lovely woman attired in quality clothing and a “…wide-brimmed blue velvet hat, topped by a black ostrich feather.” When a stiff wind blew her hat into the canal, she ran away in a confused state. “The boaters and dock workers who watched her broke into loud guffaws, for along with that beautiful hat, proud ostrich feather and all, the pesky canal wind had lifted her auburn hair clear off her head, revealing a now wigless, grey-haired older woman” (Wyld, Boaters 44).

Those who made their living on the canal were a colorful group of characters, who worked and played hard, and made the Erie Canal era the fascinating period that it was and an integral part of the life of Schenectady and an expanding American nation.

Works Cited: 

Neisuler, Jeanette. "When Schenectady and the Erie Canal Were Young." New York History, vol. 35,   no. 2, Apr. 1954, pp. 139-58.

"Schenectady Was One Bright Spot on Erie Canal." Schenectady Gazette, 4 May 1922, p. 14.

Wyld, Lionel D. Boaters and Broomsticks: Tales and Historical Lore of the Erie Canal. Utica, North   Country Books, 1986.

Wyld, Lionel D. Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1962.

No comments:

Post a Comment